Perkins looks ahead, optimistically
Ray Perkins isn't content with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 5-11 record, but he's hardly complaining about the progress of his team. He truly believes the Bucs are better than their record indicates, and is looking forward to a winning season in 1989. His private goal for this season was eight wins. He wants to draft a backup quarterback this spring, and carry three quarterbacks next season. His top two priorities going into the draft are pass rushing and the secondary. He has no plans to put any Bucs on the trading block this off-season. He admits he's erred on a few occasions this year both in personnel and on-field decisions.

Perkins said when he held his first Buccaneer mini-camp in February of 1987, he found that he had inherited a “non-team.” The Bucs won a total of four games in the two seasons under Leeman Bennett. They finished 1986 with the league's worst defense and second-to-worst offense. Within the past 22 months, Perkins has gotten rid of all but 15 of the players from the 1986 squad. “I didn't feel we had very many players you could line up and win with in this league, so we had to start from scratch,” Perkins said. “In the course of two years, we have almost totally rebuilt this team and made it competitive. We were highly competitive in every game but two this year (referring to the losses to Philadelphia, 41-14, and Minnesota, 49-20).”

And he doesn't want to hear that opponents were flat the days they played the Bucs. “Some people say, `Well, Minnesota just didn't play very well that day.' But can you say `New Orleans didn't play very well that day,' and `Buffalo didn't play very well that day.' You can't say that about seven weekends. You just can't.”

Seven of Tampa Bay's losses this year have been by seven points or less. “Last year, we were not competitive with the good teams. We could go out and make a fight of it with the lesser teams, but that's about it. That's why I can honestly say we've come a long way, and we're not too far from being a doggone good football team. Sure, I'm very disappointed that we didn't win those two, three, or four close games that we played well in, but I don't measure things by our record.”

Perkins said it's hard for “John Doe fan, or John Doe writer to appreciate how far the Bucs have come in two years.” “I'm not saying this in a critical way, but there is no way the fans or writers can understand what we've accomplished because they're not in the middle of it. All they see is the record.”

The coach said he is proudest of two things the Bucs did this year: 1. “We developed a mental toughness to the point that regardless of what happened on Sunday, we'd gear right back up with a good attitude.” 2. “We beat a really good football team (playoff-bound Buffalo). Up until then, we had nothing to shout about. But now we have a feeling that we won't lose. It'll carry with us into the off-season and into training camp next year. We know that beating a good team is possible. Before, we just hoped it was possible.”

Perkins is most pleased with his defensive front seven, and his offensive line. He feels “much better” about his receivers and running backs than he did a year ago. “Where we're weak on defense is pass rush and pass coverage. Our run defense is tough. I don't know anyone in football playing the run better than we are.”

Perkins said the improved defense is a product of new talent and hard work by assistant coaches. “Last year we didn't have (rookie defensive end) Reuben Davis, and he is a helluva football player. Curt Jarvis was a rookie last year and didn't know what the hell he was doing, plus he was hurt most of the year. Eugene Marve has added leadership. Sidney Coleman has played great. Winston Moss is a better player the second time around, and Kevin Murphy has played well every game.”

Offensively, Perkins said it “excites” him to see wide receivers Bruce Hill and Mark Carrier having the kind of year they're having. Ditto, for tight end Ron Hall, and rookie running back William Howard. As for No. 1 draft pick Paul Gruber, Perkins said, “It's exciting to bring a rookie in who hasn't gone through training camp and watch him play every single down at left tackle and hold his own as he learned.”

There are other young players - Shawn Lee, Lars Tate, Robert “Pig” Goff, Odie Harris, Frank Pillow - that have a chance to bloom, Perkins said, though they haven't yet. “They've still got a ways to go, but they certainly have the ability and good work ethic, so it's just a matter of time.”

The top two items on the Bucs shopping list this April will be a pass rusher and a defensive back, Perkins said. “We need one, maybe two players on defense to make us doggone good.”

Next on the list is a receiver, a running back, and a quarterback. “I'd like to have a young quarterback to bring along behind Vinny. I'd like to carry three quarterbacks next year, providing we find one worth carrying.”

The third quarterback, presumably, would be Joe Ferguson, who will be a 17th-year pro come August. “Joe is a class person,” Perkins said. “He's a team player, and he can still play. He can help us win. I think a lot of that guy.”

Hard times often bring out the worst in people, and Perkins said the fact that no Buc player has been in trouble off the field this year is a good sign. “If we didn't have good people, I question whether we would've had more problems after some of those tough losses. This team has character. That's by design. I don't know how to coach bad people, and I won't. Our guys care about themselves, and about each other. They aren't guys that get put in jail every other week.”

Unlike last December, when there were several players Perkins wanted off the team, this time around the coach says he'd be disappointed to see any of his 47 players leave. “Right now, I don't have in mind trading any of them. That doesn't mean we won't, but if we do, it's because somebody comes to us with a deal that'll help us. I don't plan on putting any of our guys on the market and saying, `Hey, are you interested in this guy or that guy?'

“Last year, at this time, I couldn't say that. There were several players I knew wouldn't work out and that wouldn't be in my plans. I don't know of any guys now that aren't in our plans for 1989. I'm sure some aren't going to be on the team because they just won't make the grade with the competition we're bringing in. But I really like every single one of our players right now. Some of them drive me crazy at times, but I like them.”

Perkins said half of Vinny Testaverde's problem is that expectations of him were too high. “Half the things that have been written about him lately wouldn't have been written if he'd been a third-round guy, or second-round, or even a late first. And winning the Heisman Trophy is the worst thing in the world. I don't think it's worth it.”

Perkins said he's not worried about Testaverde. “Vinny's improved mentally. He learned more what it takes to win and more what's expected of him. So many of his interceptions really aren't his. Half of them have bounced off receivers or been Hail Mary passes. Another quarter were just great defensive plays. The thing I like about Vinny is that he's continued to be aggressive. I'd be really worried if he'd gotten gun-shy at any point. During the off-season we need to work on his mechanics, footwork. He's let himself get into some bad habits, but they're totally correctable. Vinny will show more next year. I'm not saying he'll be all-world, but who is? His predecessor (Jim Kelly, who played before Bernie Kosar and Testaverde at the University of Miami) with Buffalo, is he setting the world on fire? Did Phil Simms play winning football his first few years?”

Perkins said he never second-guesses his play-calling, he just learns from what he considers poor calls. But, in retrospect, he does admit that he made a few “poor decisions” this season. One was not preparing for a last-second field goal try, which cost them the first Minnesota game. Second was giving up a 1989 third-round draft choice for receiver Stephen Starring. Ten weeks after signing him to a three-year, $1-million contract, the Bucs cut him. He caught three passes during his stay.

“That Starring thing was a mistake on my part,” he said. “At the time, I thought it was a good thing. That was before Bruce Hill had come along real strong. I felt we needed a veteran receiver to go with our young guys. Stephen had been productive with New England, but over the period of time we had him, he just appeared to have lost it. Maybe he'll gain it back with Detroit but I doubt it. That makes two years in a row I haven't done very good on third-round draft choices (referring to Dan Sileo, who was eventually cut). I think I'll let (his wife) Carolyn make the third-round choice this year.'

Perkins predicts more than five wins in 1989. He said anytime a team gets a new coach, it takes two years to get the system in order. “We've had our two years, now it's time to win,” he said. “Going into next year will be totally different from the past two. We'll know who we're going to line up at right tackle, left tackle, left guard, right guard and center. We're certainly going to look at the guys we draft, but the turnover won't be nearly as high as it's been. Next summer, winning will be emphasized more in the preseason. So far, it's been on the bottom of the list. And next year at this same time, I hope we have more games left in our season.”

Michelle Kaufman, The St.Petersburg Times 1988